My Grandfather, Gianni Caproni- The Era Depicted in “Porco Rosso”

 The azure spectrum of the Adriatic Sea, the unending sky-blues, punctuated by the striking crimson seaplane! The first encounter I had with Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, “Porco Rosso”, was one of profound emotional stirrings. A film pulsating with raw majesty and human sentiment, the meticulous craftsmanship of Miyazaki makes every frame a visual feast for the senses. Yet, despite being of the same lineage as the Italian aviation pioneer Gianni Caproni, I feel a tinge of audacity in evaluating the work of the masterful Miyazaki. The film is an intricate tapestry of stunning visuals and delightful narrative details, all woven together with delicate strokes of beauty and tenderness.

Of course, there are some hiccups in the use of the Italian language in the film. But then again, how many Italians of that period could portray our cherished homeland and the intricacy of our aviation history with the same masterful brushstrokes?

My familial connection to Gianni Caproni renders me particularly fond of the various seaplanes brought to life in “Porco Rosso”. I am profoundly grateful to Miyazaki for the loving attention he has dedicated to rendering these cherished machines of the sky.

In this cinematic wonderland, airplanes – those stalwart companions from an age when humanity brushed closest with the heavens – streak freely across the infinite expanse. It is enough to induce a sense of pure elation in all who watch.

Many of the planes that grace the film’s skies had their real-world counterparts participate in the Schneider Cup seaplane race. This esteemed competition saw entries from France, Italy, Britain, and the United States between 1913 and 1931. Porco Rosso’s own aircraft appears to be a doppelgänger of Italy’s Macchi M.33, a product of Aeronautica Macchi, which competed in the 1925 race. However, Miyazaki takes artistic liberties with each plane’s design, infusing his personal touch into the historically accurate core.

Furthermore, the film incorporates characters inspired by true individuals of significance. The two pilot escorts of the extravagant passenger ship are named after real World War I aces, Francesco Baracca and Adriano Visconti. Arturo Ferrarin, portrayed as an old friend of Porco, is inspired by the renowned pilot who daringly undertook a flight from Rome to Tokyo in the 1920s. As an anecdote, the “Rising Sun” flag given to Ferrarin upon his arrival in Tokyo is one of the prized artifacts in our museum. Another fun tidbit – Ferrarin’s aircraft (Ansaldo S.VA.9) was once housed in a Tokyo museum until 1945, only to be claimed by the United States post-war.

Regrettably, the film lacks any aircraft designs from my grandfather, an absence that was a bittersweet realization amid the heady excitement of the film’s debut. “How could there not be a single Caproni seaplane in a film centered on 1920s Italian aviation?” I wondered. However, this absence turned out to be a catalyst that significantly altered the trajectory of my life.

Some time after viewing “Porco Rosso”, I found myself impulsively mailing two books from the Caproni family collection to “Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki” in Japan. I held the unassuming hope that they might serve as references for the Maestro, albeit I wasn’t even certain of Studio Ghibli’s address. Yet, I trusted in the efficacy of Japan’s postal system and dispatched them, imagining that they would find their way to Miyazaki.

Weeks later, a response arrived – a heartfelt letter of gratitude from Miyazaki. In that moment, my life pivoted dramatically.

My grandfather, Gianni Caproni, often labeled “the last fascist,” was a man of exceptional vision. I maintain that without him, Italy would not be the nation it is today. He emerged in a time when Italy, a largely agrarian nation, had no concept of flight. Despite the challenges, he brought aviation to Italy, guided by a principle that “dreams must be much larger than reality.” His intuitive prowess in shaping wings and fuselages, despite innumerable setbacks, was testament to his sheer ingenuity. Whether in reality or his imagination, elegant aircraft always graced the skies of my grandfather’s world.

This accomplishment, however, was not his alone. My grandfather’s maiden aircraft was the culmination of a collaborative effort between him, his brother Federico, and two shipwrights. A photograph of these four stands as a testament to their endeavors in my museum.

The legacy of these pioneers allowed the aviation industry to flourish in Italy, paving the way for an influx of engineers and technological advancements. It was this progress that birthed the “beautiful era” of aviation depicted in “Porco Rosso”.

However, in the realistic shadows of “Porco Rosso”, the specter of fascism looms large. One cannot ignore the complex historical context in which my grandfather, a man tasked with designing bombers under the regime’s orders, and his teenage daughter, Maria Fede, lived.

Post-war, my grandfather was branded as “the last fascist”, and following his death, largely forgotten by the Italian populace. Despite his grand aspirations, his efforts to cultivate a new generation of aviation enthusiasts, as evident from his establishment of the “Caproni Industrial Technical School” in 1935, were largely unappreciated.

Sadly, in Italy, my grandfather’s achievements have been overshadowed by his unfortunate political associations. However, the arrival of Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” (Si alza il vento) sparked a new wave of appreciation for his legacy.

From the far reaches of Japan, Miyazaki not only crafted a beautiful homage to my grandfather’s era in “Porco Rosso,” but also breathed life into the real persona of my grandfather in “The Wind Rises.” My gratitude for Miyazaki’s work transcends the limitations of language.

In “The Wind Rises”, Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero Fighter, articulates his aspiration to “make beautiful airplanes” – a sentiment that resonated deeply with my grandfather. A testament to this is his work with Ducati, now renowned for their motorcycles, but in the 1920s, a company primarily focused on radios. My grandfather designed the body of their inaugural motorized bicycle, the “Cucciolo” (Puppy). Even in this endeavor, the hallmark of my grandfather’s aesthetic sense – a fusion of form and function – was evident.

Seeing this alignment between the passions of my grandfather and Miyazaki, I can’t help but feel a profound connection. The striking red color shared by the Cucciolo and Porco Rosso’s beloved aircraft can’t be mere coincidence.

Indeed, upon the culmination of the magnum opus, “The Wind Rises”, the Maestro Miyazaki himself graced me with a pair of exquisite drawings, each sketched by his hand and accompanied by an enigmatic message. I can still recall the trepidation and reverence with which I gingerly unwrapped the parcel, all the way from the far reaches of Japan. The sight of those drawings prompted an unprecedented wellspring of emotion within me, leading to a shedding of tears for the first time in my life – no trace of hyperbole intended. The poignant truth that resonated through those drawings was unmistakable: Gianni Caproni and Hayao Miyazaki, two visionaries separated by the sands of time and vast expanses, unequivocally harbored the same sentiments within their hearts.

Please indulge me as I guard the content of these drawings within my heart’s sanctum for a little longer. I eagerly anticipate the day when I can engage in a rich, detailed discussion about that extraordinary film with the people of Japan.

Italo Caproni – born in Milan in 1973. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Milan. Currently, as the director of the Gianni Caproni Aviation Museum, he is committed to managing and disseminating the Caproni family’s heritage. Previously, he was mainly involved in planning and promoting animation and comic events in Northern Italy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *